“A riot is the language of the unheard.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
How’s your heart feeling? Heavy? Damaged? Broken?
Your lungs? “I can’t breathe.” A plaintive mantra for the times: coronavirus attacking the lungs, daily news attacking the psyche, police officers attacking a Black man’s throat.
Whether you’ve watched it or not (I avoid violent videos), I’m sure you’ve heard all about the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a Minneapolis police officer spent kneeling on George Floyd’s throat, effectively snuffing out his life while three other officers looked on.
“You can’t be human and not be affected by that video,” Iowa Hawkeye head football coach Kirk Ferentz said, addressing his team recently. “I’m sure that many of you felt the same way I did – heartbroken. Frustrated. Angry.”
Heartbroken. Frustrated. Angry. Tears well up as I type these words, picturing Ferentz saying them, hearing the emotion in his voice. My husband B is from Iowa, so I’ve watched many a Hawkeye game and know Ferentz is an emotional guy. And a damn good leader, a moral one.
I had to look it up, because he’s said so little on the topic, but the President* used similar words to describe the tragedy: “It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger, and grief.” Here’s the thing: hearing these words from a person who sorely lacks leadership skills, has a shattered moral compass, and lies liberally and deliberately? They just don’t have the same heft.
You can’t expect comfort, advice, or a unifying message from such a man. Instead? I watched in horror, anger and grief when he had pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash grenades unleashed on peaceful protestors prior to a 7 pm curfew in Washington, DC so that he might enjoy a photo opp in front of the Church of the Presidents, where he plucked a Bible from his daughter’s $1,500 handbag and waved it around, upside-down and backwards.
I do feel we can look to our own leader, Prime Minister Trudeau, despite brownface criticisms; pictures of him dressed as Aladdin from 2001 surfaced a while back. To me? He seems like the kind of guy who likes costumes – he’s been criticized for showing off his fancy socks, got a lot of flak for the garb he wore while in India – and I can relate as I love dressing up too. But this kind of dressing up is “cultural appropriation”. While it may have been done by white people decades ago without a second thought, on this I think we’ve listened and learned. It’s perceived as mockery; it causes pain.
“It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time,” Trudeau said. “but now I recognize it was something racist to do and I am deeply sorry.”
He did something wrong and apologized for it, something I’ve not seen his counterpart in the US ever do. Asked the other day to respond to the President*’s call for military action against protesters in the US, Trudeau was speechless for more than 20 seconds. Then? “We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States,” he said. “It is a time to pull people together, but it is a time to listen, it is a time to learn what injustices continue despite progress over years and decades. But it is a time for us as Canadians to recognize that we too have our challenges, that Black Canadians and racialized Canadians face discrimination as a lived reality every single day. There is systemic discrimination in Canada.” You have to see it, admit it’s there, to fix it, yes?
I’m a white woman. I have no clue what it’s like to be Black. Trudeau’s white. Coach Ferentz said this to his team: “I am a white football coach. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be pulled over for driving while Black or to have people cross the street because they don’t want to walk alongside you.” Being white, we enjoy privileges most Black people can only dream of.
If you’re like me and you want to listen, learn, understand, I highly recommend Dan Harris’s podcast Ten Percent Happier in which he interviews author Lama Rod Owens. It’s called “An Uncomfortable (But Meaningful) Conversation About Race”. Being white, it is uncomfortable, because I want to understand, but I don’t want to hurt, don’t want to say the wrong thing. And being white in Southwestern Ontario means meeting very few Black people, but there are many other ethnic groups in the region to be considerate of.
Owens talks about what he calls Black heartbreak. “I grew up with this heavy disappointment because I was born into a system that I did not consent to,” he says. “Heavy disappointment.” That is heartbreaking isn’t it? It’s certainly something I know nothing about.
He suggests being curious, asking your friends of all stripes how they’re doing in this moment. He cautions that the intellect – a place white folks tend to go for security, escape – is not the answer, that the constant return to the body, to the feelings will help connect, point the way.
Getting back to Coach Ferentz, he pointed out, “These are painful times for our nation and community. One of the most important traits a leader can demonstrate is the ability to listen. To always have an attitude of learning.”
And we are all leaders in our own communities, families. To effect positive change? We need to listen. And learn.
Website photo: wise words from a protest sign in Des Moines, Iowa.